Gaston Bachelard

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Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard 1965.jpg
Gaston Bachelard, 12 July 1965
Born (1884-06-27)27 June 1884
Bar-sur-Aube, France
Died 16 October 1962(1962-10-16) (aged 78)
Paris, France
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Continental philosophy
French rationalism
French historical epistemology[1]
Institutions University of Dijon[2]
University of Paris
Main interests
Historical epistemology
constructivist epistemology, history and philosophy of science, philosophy of art, psychoanalysis, literary theory, education
Notable ideas
Epistemological break, rational materialism, technoscience

Gaston Bachelard (/ˌbæʃəˈlɑːr/ ; French: [baʃlaʁ]; 27 June 1884 – 16 October 1962) was a French philosopher.[8] He made contributions in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break (obstacle épistémologique and rupture épistémologique). He influenced many subsequent French philosophers, among them Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Dominique Lecourt and Jacques Derrida, as well as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

For Bachelard the scientific object should be constructed and therefore, different from the positivist sciences, information is in continuous construction. Empiricism and rationalism are not regarded as dualism or opposition but complementary, therefore studies of a priori and a posteriori or in other words reason and are dialectic and are part of scientific research.[9]

Life and work

Bachelard was a postal clerk in Bar-sur-Aube, and then studied physics and chemistry before finally becoming interested in philosophy. He was a professor at Dijon from 1930 to 1940 and then was appointed chair in the history and philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. In 1958 he became a member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.[10]

Bachelard's psychology of science

Bachelard's studies of the history and philosophy of science in such works as Le nouvel esprit scientifique ("The New Scientific Spirit", 1934) and La formation de l'esprit scientifique ("The Formation of the Scientific Mind", 1938) were based on his vision of historical epistemology as a kind of psychoanalysis of the scientific mind.

In the English-speaking world, the connection Bachelard made between psychology and the history of science has been little understood. Bachelard demonstrated how the progress of science could be blocked by certain types of mental patterns, creating the concept of obstacle épistémologique ("epistemological obstacle"). One task of epistemology is to make clear the mental patterns at use in science, in order to help scientists overcome the obstacles to knowledge.

Epistemological breaks: the discontinuity of scientific progress

Bachelard was critical of Auguste Comte's positivism, which considered science as a continual progress. To Bachelard, scientific developments such as Einstein's theory of relativity demonstrated the discontinuous nature of the history of sciences. Thus models that framed scientific development as continuous, such as that of Comte and Émile Meyerson, seemed simplistic and erroneous to Bachelard.

Through his concept of "epistemological break", Bachelard underlined the discontinuity at work in the history of sciences. However the term "epistemological break" itself is almost never used by Bachelard, but became famous through Louis Althusser.

He showed that new theories integrated old theories in new paradigms, changing the sense of concepts (for instance, the concept of mass, used by Newton and Einstein in two different senses). Thus, non-Euclidean geometry did not contradict Euclidean geometry, but integrated it into a larger framework.

The role of epistemology in science

Bachelard was a rationalist in the Cartesian sense, although he recommended his "non-Cartesian epistemology" as a replacement for the more standard Cartesian epistemology.[11] He compared "scientific knowledge" to ordinary knowledge in the way we deal with it, and saw error as only illusion: "Scientifically, one thinks truth as the historical rectification of a persistent error, and experiments as correctives for an initial, common illusion (illusion première)."[12]

The role of epistemology is to show the history of the (scientific) production of concepts; those concepts are not just theoretical propositions: they are simultaneously abstract and concrete, pervading technical and pedagogical activity. This explains why "The electric bulb is an object of scientific thought… an example of an abstract-concrete object."[13] To understand the way it works, one has to take the detour of scientific knowledge. Epistemology is thus not a general philosophy that aims at justifying scientific reasoning. Instead it produces regional histories of science.

Shifts in scientific perspective

Bachelard saw how seemingly irrational theories often simply represented a drastic shift in scientific perspective. For instance, he claimed that the theory of probabilities was just another way of complexifying reality through a deepening of rationality (even though critics like Lord Kelvin found this theory irrational).[14]

One of his main theses in The New Scientific Mind was that modern sciences had replaced the classical ontology of the substance with an "ontology of relations", which could be assimilated to something like a process philosophy. For instance, the physical concepts of matter and rays correspond, according to him, to the metaphysical concepts of the thing and of movement; but whereas classical philosophy considered both as distinct, and the thing as ontologically real, modern science can not distinguish matter from rays: it is thus impossible to examine an immobile thing, which was precisely the condition for knowledge according to classical theory of knowledge (Becoming being impossible to be known, in accordance with Aristotle and Plato's theories of knowledge).

In non-Cartesian epistemology, there is no "simple substance" as in Cartesianism, but only complex objects built by theories and experiments, and continuously improved (VI, 4). Intuition is therefore not primitive, but built (VI, 2). These themes led Bachelard to support a sort of constructivist epistemology.

Other academic interests

In addition to epistemology, Bachelard's work deals with many other topics, including poetry, dreams, psychoanalysis, and the imagination. The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) and The Poetics of Space (1958) are among the most popular of his works: Jean-Paul Sartre cites the former and Bachelard's Water and Dreams in his Being and Nothingness (1943), and the latter had a wide reception in architectural theory circles. In philosophy, this nocturnal side of his work is developed by his student Gilbert Durand.


  • Essai sur la connaissance approchée (1928)
  • Étude sur l'évolution d'un problème de physique: la propagation thermique dans les solides (1928)
  • La valeur inductive de la relativité (1929)
  • La pluralisme cohérent de la chimie moderne (1932)
  • L'Intuition de l'instant (1932)
  • Les intuitions atomistiques: essai de classification (1933)
  • Le nouvel esprit scientifique (1934)
  • La dialectique de la durée (1936)
  • L'expérience de l'espace dans la physique contemporaine (1937)
  • La formation de l'esprit scientifique: contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective (1938)
  • La psychanalyse du feu (1938) (The Psychoanalysis of Fire, 1964)
  • La philosophie du non: essai d'une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique (1940), publisher Pellicanolibri, 1978
  • L'eau et les rêves (1942) (Water and Dreams, 1983)
  • L'air et les songes (1943) (Air and Dreams, 1988)
  • La terre et les rêveries de la volonté (1948) (Earth and Reveries of Will, 2002)
  • La terre et les rêveries du repos (1948) (Earth and Reveries of Repose, 2011)
  • Le Rationalisme appliqué (1949)
  • L'activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine (1951)
  • Le matérialisme rationnel (1953)
  • La poétique de l'espace (1957) (The Poetics of Space, 1969 and 2014)
  • La poétique de la rêverie (1960)
  • La flamme d'une chandelle (1961)
  • L'engagement rationaliste (1972)

English translations

Though most of Bachelard's major works on poetics have been translated into English, only about half of his works on the philosophy of science have been translated.

  • The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind. Orion Press, New York, 1968. Translation by G.C. Waterston. (La philosophie du non)
  • The New Scientific Spirit. Beacon Press, Boston, 1985. Translation by A. Goldhammer. (Le nouvel esprit scientifique)
  • Dialectic of Duration. Clinamen, Bolton, 2000. Translation by M. McAllester Jones. (La dialectique de la durée)
  • The Formation of the Scientific Mind. Clinamen, Bolton, 2002. Translation by M. McAllester Jones. (La formation de l'esprit scientifique)
  • Intuition of the Instant. Northwestern University Press, 2013. Translation by Eileen Rizo-Patron (L'intuition de l'instant)
  • Atomistic Intuitions. State University of New York Press, 2018. Translation by Roch C. Smith (Intuitions atomistiques)

See also


  1. E. Reck (ed.), The Historical Turn in Analytic Philosophy, Springer, 2016: ch. 2.1.
  2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998): "Bachelard, Gaston (1884-1962)".
  3. A term for the combination of technology and science as disciplines coined in 1953 by Bachelard; see: Gaston Bachelard, La materialisme rationel, Paris: PUF, 1953; Don Ihde, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science, Northwestern University Press, 1999, p. 8.
  4. Joseph W. Dauben and Christoph J. Scriba (eds.), Writing the History of Mathematics – Its Historical Development, 2002, p. 33.
  5. Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (eds.), Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard, SUNY Press, 2017, p. 123 n. 11.
  6. François Dosse. Castoriadis. Une vie. Paris: La Découverte, 2014, pp. 43–4.
  7. M. Serres, "La réforme et les sept péchés," L'Arc, 42, Bachelard special issue (1970).
  8. Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers. London: Routledge. 1996. pp. 41–42. ISBN 0-415-06043-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Lima, Marcos Antonio Martins; Marinelli, Marcos (13 July 2011). "A epistemologia de Gaston Bachelard: Uma Ruptura com as Filosofias do Imobilismo". Revista de Ciências Humanas. XLV (2).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Index biographique des membres et associés de l'Académie royale de Belgique (1769-2005) p 19.
  11. The New Scientific Mind, conclusion.
  12. The New Scientific Mind, VI, 6.
  13. in Le Rationalisme appliqué (1949, 2nd ed. of 1962, p. 104ff).
  14. The New Scientific Mind, V (p. 120 French ed., 1934).


  • Dominique Lecourt, L’épistémologie historique de Gaston Bachelard (1969). Vrin, Paris, 11e édition augmentée, 2002.
  • Dominique Lecourt, Pour une critique de l’épistémologie : Bachelard, Canguilhem, Foucault (1972, réed. Maspero, Paris, 5e éd. 1980).
  • D. Lecourt, Marxism and Epistemology: Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault, New Left Books, London (1975).
  • Dominique Lecourt, Bachelard, Epistémologie, textes choisis (1971). PUF, Paris, 6e édition, 1996.
  • Dominique Lecourt, Bachelard, le jour et la nuit, Grasset, Paris, 1974.
  • Didier Gil, Bachelard et la culture scientifique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1993.
  • Didier Gil, Autour de Bachelard – esprit et matière, un siècle français de philosophie des sciences (1867–1962), Les Belles Lettres, Encre marine, 2010.
  • Hommage à Gaston Bachelard. Etudes de philosophie et d'histoire des sciences, by C. Bouligand, G. Canguilhem, P. Costabel, F. Courtes, François Dagognet, M. Daumas, Gilles Granger, J. Hyppolite, R. Martin, R. Poirier and R. Taton
  • Actes du Colloque sur Bachelard de 1970 (Colloque de Cerisy).
  • L'imaginaire du concept: Bachelard, une épistémologie de la pureté by Françoise Gaillard, MLN, Vol. 101, No. 4, French Issue (Sep 1986), pp. 895–911.
  • Gaston Bachelard ou le rêve des origines, by Jean-Luc Pouliquen, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2007.

Further reading

  • Chimisso, Cristina (2001). Gaston Bachelard: Critic of Science and the Imagination, Routledge.
  • Dagognet, F. (1970). "Bachelard, Gaston". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 365–366. ISBN 0-684-10114-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Kushner, Eva M. (1963). "The Critical Method of Gaston Bachelard." In: Myth and Symbol: Critical Approaches and Applications. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Jones, McAllester (1991). Gaston Bachelard Subversive Humanist: Texts and Readings, University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Rizo-Patron, Eileen; Edward S. Casey, and Jason Wirth, eds. (2017). Adventures in Phenomenology, Gaston Bachelard, State University of New York Press.
  • Smith, James L. (2012). "New Bachelards?: Reveries, Elements and Twenty-First Century Materialisms". Other Modernities: 156–167.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smith, Roch C. (2016). Gaston Bachelard, Philosopher of Science and Imagination, State University of New York Press.
  • Tiles, Mary (1984). Bachelard: Science and Objectivity, Cambridge University Press.

External links